Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2011 will mark 10 years I've been publishing, so by some standards, that means I've been a writer for a decade. My first publication was in the University of Arkansas' literary and arts magazine Exposure, which I don't believe exists anymore. Shame. They published a poem of mine entitled "The Garden" back in 2001. It was as much a surprise to me as anyone. I'm not going to post the poem here because it was terrible, but it was a start. It took me another year, really, to get published nationally, but by 2002 I was appearing in some decent journals like Story South, Hobart, Nimrod--for which Skip Hays shook my hand and introduced me around the department. Pretty good for an undergrad. who was really just a country boy from the Delta.

2001 was also the year I took two very important workshops--Creative Writing II with Skip Hays, Donald if you're nasty (that one's for you, Matt) and Poetry with Miller Williams. Skip was the finest teacher of writing I've ever had, which is a little sad considering I'm talking about CWII and I went on to grad. school after this. But really, it's a testament to how good Skip is. (He's also a damn fine writer.) He kicked my ass so bad classmates would come up to me and apologize after class, which always surprised me--maybe I was just more used to the stick method than the carrot. Skip tore me a new one, just about everyday, and boy did I need it. I remember this one poem about smoking pot and getting a handjob--I described the semen hitting the wall and sliding down. Skip spent a solid 2 minutes pondering how, exactly, semen would slide down a wall--would it drip or sort of ooze--before concluding that this poem 'took us into the shit house both literally and figuratively'. He taught me to respect not only my audience, but the work itself. If you're interested, here's a story from that class I dusted off and published over at Thieves Jargon.

When I decided to go to grad. school, I went and talked to Skip to see what he thought. "Have you ever been out of the South?" he asked. "I've been to St. Louis," I said, which was all the answer he needed. He told me to get as far away from the South as I could. I ended up at Hollins in Virginia because, well, they gave me a lot of money. At least it wasn't Arkansas. Of course, I've missed Fayetteville ever since I left. It was good for me in certain ways, though. Hollins isn't like the U of A. Forgive me, but my experiences at the U of A were incredible and life-changing and full of assholes who didn't understand why the world hadn't realized how brilliant they were. I used to call them "grad. students" but to be perfectly honest, the worst of them were undergrads sucking up to the grad. students. My point is, at U of A there was a definite demarcation between grad. and undergrad. I think this is fairly common at MFA programs. Not exactly so at Hollins--Hollins doesn't coddle its grad. students. Likewise, at U of A, I might be required to write 3 stories a term. At Hollins, I wrote that in a week, no revisions, no 'I'm just tightening this one up for the fifth time before I send it out'. It was new work, every class period. You know, like in the real world. U of A taught me nuts and bolts. Hollins taught me work ethic. I had my first poetry collection picked up at Hollins. I wrote a draft of my first real novel, hell my first two. I went in to Hollins with maybe 50 publications under my belt and came out with a few hundred and a body of work I'm still sifting through.

Back to U of A--another class I took 10 years ago was Miller William's Poetry workshop. Miller Williams was a superstar at U of A. He was Bill Clinton's second inaugural poet. He was Lucinda Williams' father. He was a lynchpin of the program. He shit daisies and farted sunshine. I got into his class, and by the second week or so, had developed a real healthy hate for the bulk of my classmates. Don't get me wrong--there were two or three folks in there who were so far beyond me as writers it took me most of the term to catch up, but most of them were, as Skip had taught me, taking us into the shithouse. (I should say "we".) They wrote about that one time they went to Paris. They wrote about how, even though their parents were paying their bills, they were independent now. They wrote about poverty from the persepctive of kids who've never gone hungry. They wrote about the trifling concerns of the 20-something in earnest prose that Miller macheted to pieces. My buddy Chris Fulelrton always mentions the time Miller passed one of my poems back to me and said, "I cut 87 words from this poem." That was it. We moved on. Or the time I turned in a poem about what a waste of time poetry is when compared to all the tragedies in the world (like, you know, somebody doing DRUGS!) entitled "Poem for Mr. Williams" and Miller said, "I wish that I had the time to care," and passed that one back. (In his defense, it wasn't exactly how it sounded--the title was really a shorthand--'Poem for Mr. Williams' CLASS' because I didn't have a title, but it came off sounding like an indictment of the man and his life's work.) Butm unlike, apparently, many of them, I had a revelation. So while my classmates wrote poems about their hair, I started writing about rice farming. When they wrote about the time they went back-packing in Europe, I wrote about the time I helped dress a yearling. I started trying to write about things that mattered. If you're interested, my first real breakthrough poem from that class was called "Roaches". It's a little choppy, but I still like it. If anything could be called my 'first' real poem, it's that, right down to the hint of surrealism.

I did some cyber-stalking a year or two back and found that most of the folks I went to classes with at U of A aren't publishing much these days. Most of them never did publish much. To be honest, it's a rare week that goes by when I don't have something picked up or published. But maybe that's just me. I've always talked too much. Let me be clear: I always felt like the kid hanging around the grown-ups' table, as a writer. In classes, I tried everything that was suggested to me about my writing. I never had a swelled head. Some of my classmates had puffed-out chests about their work. They thought they were hot shit. Who was I to argue? I was a country boy. They'd been to Paris once. And yet it's strange to me that so many of my classmates have fallen by the wayside. Maybe they still write but can't be bothered to send it out. I don't keep in contact with most of them. My classmates from Hollins are slightly more prolific. A couple of them run journals. Of course, a couple of them regularly publish novels or collections, too. So there's that. I exchange emails or phone calls with a couple, visit a couple every now and then. I made a real good friend at U of A and a couple friends at Hollins. I accumulated six figures of debt--counting my wife's loans. I had written a novel before I ever went to college, and well over a thousand poems. They were all shit; that's why I went to college to study writing. I went to grad. school to hone my craft and become part of a community of writers. It's awful lonely writing on the farm. That was my goal--to feel like I knew what I was doing when I sat down in front of the blank page. I've written about my pre-college writing here.

So here I am, ten year later. I've got the debt. I've got 4 books out (well, my 4th is due out any day now...) and a stack of manuscripts keeping the post office in business. I haven't made enough money to really even mention. Sure, I get the odd $100 from this journal, $50 from that one, but I've never made real money at writing. Maybe I'm wrong, then. Maybe I'm not a real writer until I make a living writing. I guess that gives me a goal for the next ten years.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


1. finish Zombietown
2. finish Clay

1. finish Habit
2. finish wings

Short Stories
1. place flash collection
2. finish Solum stories

1. re-record Shizknit

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Today, I hadn't written in a while, so I thought, "Fuck it, I'll write some flash fiction. That won't take long. Then I can go back to watching reruns of 'Home Improvement.'" I mean, look at the evidence. Read some journals. They're full of flash fiction and most of it is shit. These folks aren't spending a lot of time on this stuff, and if they are, well that's just sad. Sure, every so often one of them stands out, but most of them are instantly forgettable. I'm not singling FF out--the same could be true of poetry or longer fiction. But FF is shorter, even than some poems. And one wonders if the bulk of 'fiction' writers publishing in journals these days even know how to sustain a longer piece of fiction anymore. But if I go much further with this, I'll have to start naming names.

To survive as a writer, one needs momentum. Now that can be tricky. Me personally, I often get it from positive reinforcement--publications, crowd reactions, etc. But publishing, especially online, doesn't really mean much these days. I keep sending my stuff out, and I keep having it picked up. And to be honest, most of the time I'm disappointed in myself when something I've written is picked up by an online journal. "I should've shot higher," say I to myself. Of course, on the opposite end of the spectrum, sending your work to some head-strong grad. student to reject from a print journal because his professor told him not to like it or because he doesn't recognize your name can be a little frustrating too. So where to get momentum? The project itself (whatever I'm writing) offers a good bit. Sure, it's hard to keep up the pace of writing a novel when you work 12 hours a day, especially when you're looking at maybe someday getting it published and then having probably nobody outside of your friends and family read it. So to actually finish a project, I, for one, really have to feel strongly about it. Am I the only one? (I know that's absurdly unfair--there are tons of great writers out there. It's called making a point.)

There is just so much white noise out there. So many mediocre writers pumping out so-so work. So little of it is interesting or creative. What little is interesting or creative is buried in the white noise. So what's the point of it all? Some of the white noise is created by folks trying to bolster their resumes in order to nab or keep academic positions, sure. Some of them are still laboring under the antiquated model which leads them to believe there's some challenge to getting published. I'm talking about status, which is quickly becoming a thing of the past, in writing. Sure, the grad. students try to hold on to it, but there's nothing special about an MFA when thousands of other people are getting them every year.

Writing is all about telling stories, sure. Christmas is about giving, too, but we all want to receive every now and again. It certainly is nice when someone sends an email or makes a comment about something you've written. It would be nicer if they enclosed a check. Still, given the choice, I would rather be Van Gogh--the genius toiling in obscurity, than work for Hallmark, sure. Absolutely. No question. Except, of course, that Van Gogh had a LOT of venereal diseases. So we can skip that part.

Friday, December 10, 2010

We have a teacher who is forever making comments about how unprepared she is. She talks about how she has no lesson plans--no idea what she's going to teach next period and how unprepared she is, generally. She brags about winging it in classes and other commitments. She's very young, and I don't think she understands just how bad this sounds. She seems to think it's normal or at least acceptable to be totally unprepared, not only for her job, but for anything else. It's frankly embarrasing.

I was young once. It's hard to belive, but I was. Once upon a time, I made the same comments--not as an adult, but as a student. I was a terrible student and was usually unprepared for class. I was lazy, unmotivated, bored, etc. My point is that I'm talking about when I was a teenager.

Things happen. I can't imagine walking into a classroom and having no idea what I'm about to do or say, but I understand that things do happen. And maybe this teacher isn't being honest--but what could the purpose of that be? She is essentially saying that the profession all the rest of us have chosen isn't worth her time. And she somehow thinks that's funny or cool or...something.

I mean, if you don't like your job, get a new one. Seriously. Why spend your life doing something you don't want to do?

It's a shame. It reveals, if not a deep-seated laziness, then an acceptance of laziness. And let me tell you, if you don't already know, laziness is a hard monkey to shake. (I'm not sure that analogy works, but I love it.) I grew up lazy, and it's been the bane of my existence. My family's idea of a vacation was watching "Bonanza" reruns on TV. We worked hard during the days and sat hard in the evenings. I drive myself with that same work ethic--I work 12 hour days, minimum, plus squeezing in some writing when I can--but I still struggle with this engrained laziness. When I go home, I watch TV. It's a shame. Sure, I can justify it--I just worked 12 fucking hours and managed to do some writing and send some work out. You expect me to go for a jog?--but I'm also getting to the point where, when I wear blue, people mistake me for Veruca Salt pre-juicing.

Okay, so I'm driven. I've gone from discussing someone who isn't prepared for work, to being prepared for life. Sue me. We spend much of our life at work. And life isn't "I've done enough." It's "what have I done?" Who wants to live a half-assed life? I don't. I wish I'd figured this one out 20 some odd years ago, but oh well. Back then, I didn't know there were options.

It's snowing outside. I'm going to walk through it for an hour or so, start a snowball fight with some students, and go make hot chocolate. Maybe after that, I'll watch "Dr. Who" on TV. Oh well. At least I have a plan. It's a lesson.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The newest section of my seriel, River City Blues, is live at Troubadour 21. The whole thing is archived there.

Had to take a break from the novella I was working on, which is a sequel to the novella I wrote over the summer. I don't think they'd work as 1 book. Anyway, 80 pages in, just a few more to go when I get a chance to get back to it. This whole work thing...

Very nice poem went up at poemeleon

Lots going on, little time to write about it. Here's a recap:

--We were Christmas shopping for my brother at Wal Mart the other day. He's become this unemployed, morbidly obese thing. I wanted to buy him some new clothes because he looks like a vagrant, but we can't afford to buy him nice things, so: Wal Mart. But I didn't think the largest sized clothes at Wal Mart would fit him. It made me very sad because he's going to die from this weight. Then I saw a student with her mom. I'd made the student cry the day before by reprimanding her for leaving a committment and not returning. Crocodile tears. The mom wasn't happy to see me.

--Last year, I made way more students cry. Am I slipping?

--One of my favorite students, an ex-drug addict who I take to NA meetings once a week, got into a good college with a scholarship. So maybe I'm accomplishing something. Then she skipped the meeting this week.

--I was playing guitar and picked out a song my band used to play that I'd forgotten. Then I realized that I don't actually have the movie I was going to show in class tomorrow. Frantic search. New lesson plans.

--My YA novel Sunlight is coming out in a week or so. Wouldn't it be nice if someone bought it?

--When we were kids, my big sister and I stayed up late on Christmas Eve and filled our own stockings. We would put fruit from the kitchen, pennies we'd saved. Will my child have memories like that?